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Easter A Gospel

John 20:1-18

Carla Sunberg

It’s the first Easter Sunday morning and Mary Magdalene has an encounter that changes everything. She is the first to declare that she has seen the resurrected Messiah telling the other disciples, “I have seen the Lord.” The significance of this moment should not be lost on the reader. There is great intentionality on the part of Jesus, allowing a woman to become the bearer of the good news of the resurrection.

The setting for today’s Scripture is in the garden where we find Jesus’ tomb. This must be seen in juxtaposition to the garden of Eden. It is in Eden where sin gains a foothold and begins its corruptive work among the people. Now, in another garden, Jesus bursts forth from the tomb and resurrection power begins its healing conquest.

It is in the first garden where the woman succumbs to the temptation of the evil one. In Genesis 3:13 we read, “Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’” The results of that disobedience are then felt throughout the centuries. God’s desire for humanity was to have an unobstructed relationship with God, and with one another. There was to be no hierarchy between men and women, but an equal partnership. In that moment in the garden, both the vertical and horizontal relationships were corrupted. The humans’ relationship with God was altered, as was their relationship with one another. This included the woman and the man bearing consequences for their action.

Throughout the centuries, we have seen that women have been held responsible, or have been viewed as participants in Eve’s actions. Even in the early years of Christianity there were those who failed to see the significance of today’s resurrection text. Tertullian, in the 3rd century declared to women:

And do you not know that you are (each) an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert — that is, death — even the Son of God had to die. [1]

Just a century later Augustine would state, “What difference does it make whether it is in a wife or in a mother, provided that we nonetheless avoid Eve in any woman?” [2]

While we celebrate the resurrection, it is often the redemptive message that we fail to see in the garden. Resurrection power was redemptive and restorative. That which had been destroyed in Eden could now be restored as a result of the garden tomb. Because of resurrection power humanity would have the ability to fully participate in fellowship with the Triune God. All barriers between God and humanity were destroyed, and in the same stroke, so were the divisions between humans. Nowhere is this better expressed than in the words of the Apostle Paul in Galatians 3:28, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Jesus intentionally reached out to a woman who represented all women, and had borne the brunt of guilt for sin, as the initial point of healing which would come from resurrection power.

This redemptive view of the resurrection is often missed. While some early Christian scholars embraced the significance of a woman becoming the first evangelist (bearer of the good news), others have not been so willing. In the early years of Christianity Mary Magdalene was considered a saint and probably a virgin. She was highly regarded among the members of the fledgling church which was given birth at Pentecost. It was not until 591 that Mary Magdalene’s reputation was altered. Pope Gregory I, also known as Pope Gregory the Great wrote a Homily in which he creates what becomes known as the “composite Mary.” He brings together portraits of different women in the gospel texts, including the woman who wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair, and the woman from whom Jesus excises demons and declares them all to be Mary Magdalene. Thus was born the reputation that this woman was a prostitute and a woman in deep need of help from Jesus. Often, without question this has been the accepted history of Mary Magdalene.

The problem with this narrative is that any time we refuse to see the redemptive act of Jesus reaching out to Mary Magdalene in the garden as intentional, we are refusing to accept resurrection power. The virginity and purity of Mary may have been a threat to ecclesial power structures of the late 5th and early 6th centuries, for when we truly embrace what happens in that moment, then power becomes shared equally among slave and free, Jew and Greek, male and female. Jesus’ intentional revelation of his resurrection in front of Mary challenges all of the political power structures we as humans may construct and that may create discomfort.

Celebration of the resurrection must include the power of redemption. Just as Jesus is intentional in reaching out to Mary Magdalene, so we are called to be intentional. Human power structures continue to create divides. We continue to create excuses for the ways in which we treat others, even defaming reputations for the sake of retaining power. In the dawn of that first Easter Sunday it wasn’t all that clear, and yet it was. Resurrection power would redeem and restore all that had been broken as a result of sin but this can only happen when we are willing to have our eyes opened to see Jesus for who he really is, and intentionally dwell in the stream of resurrection power.

[1] Tertullian, Fourth part 4.2, On the Apparel of Women (ANF 4:25).

[2] Augustine, The Works of Saint Augustine: Letters 211-270 (Hyde Park, New York: New City Press, 2005), Ep. 243.10.

Carla Sunberg

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